Following the intricate stylings of the 1991 smash hit Out of Time, R.E.M. finally had the attention of the masses after paying their dues with seven critically consistent albums. Even after signing with Warner Brothers, they were never a band to sacrifice their own distorted musical vision. Instead, they embraced an evolution in their sound that happened so naturally. Rather than trying to replicate the bubblegum charm of tunes like “Shiny Happy People,” the band leaned heavily into the dark fascination that was always present in their music. At the height of both their creative ambitions and their mainstream success, R.E.M. rode out the perfect storm that would give way to their magnum opus.
Shaped in part by the departure of their unofficial fifth member, Peter Holsapple, the band was ready for a directional shift. In order to step out of their comfort zone, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry traded their primary instruments and created aesthetically introspective demos, sans drums, presented to Michael Stipe to add his lyrical spin. The result was a stripped down, somber turn for the band, an album that focused on tonal consistency. Automatic for the People became a cassette that was meant to serve as the soundtrack for a contemplative night drive.
As they were reaching their thirties and watching their contemporaries throw in the towel, R.E.M. naturally became captivated by their own mortality. The malaise of getting older undoubtedly motivated “Drive,” whose campfire fingerpicking and residual vocal echoes serve as the backbone for waves of sound to ebb and flow throughout. Musically, the song’s most striking feature is its understated string section, arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. It is a light touch, one that never overstays its welcome or sounds overproduced, but it serves as the driving force on the track.
“Try Not to Breathe” picks up the pace a bit, but it is in no way an uplifting tune. Although it’s a lively waltz, it encompasses a tragic idea. The subject of the song opts for suicide as a way of preserving a moment in time forever, rather than allowing it to wither away. It is a repetitive number, but not one that ever feels tiresome. There are too many interesting musical balls in the air, with even hints of Celtic folk music. It is a rare gut-wrenching tale that also serves as a catchy pop earworm
One of only a couple of rockers featured on the album, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is the most fanciful song Automatic for the People has to offer. Although he is often fond of stoic delivery, here Michael Stipe finds meaning in wailing, sometimes into full falsetto. The members of the band have tried to denounce this song, but it feels to capture a playful spirit that flows through many of their most affecting tracks. It is a brief, whimsical moment of distraction, breaking up the tension of the heavier subject matter discussed on the record.
For their most inescapable single, “Everybody Hurts,” R.E.M. chose to construct a public service announcement about suicide prevention. The song’s straightforward sincerity lends itself to parody, but its directness is deliberate, in the hopes that it would be taken at face value. Musically, it is far from revolutionary, but its simplicity makes it memorable. Whether or not the song’s core message resonates with you, it’s not difficult to find yourself humming it at random intervals. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to interpret the track as being condescendingly transparent.
The band’s first attempt at a voiceless track, “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” is more of a transition piece than it is a complete statement. A bit of a palate cleanser, it feels like the direction that indie drama film scores would soon take. Knowing R.E.M.’s approach to songwriting, one might be apt to see this as a song that didn’t get finished, but it is a pleasant, dynamic number that serves as a continuation of the album’s mood. The heavy dependence on the electric piano gives the song an otherworldly quality that only works to its benefit. An often overlooked track, it was introduced to a new generation this year when it was included in Baby Driver.
A functional companion piece to “Drive,” “Sweetness Follows” makes the most of its skeletal acoustic guitar strumming and lingering cello chords. Another exploration of loss, this time the speaker is an observer of death, rather than a victim. Still, none of us are truly safe for long; the grim reaper always prevails in the end. The first step for many on the journey to facing mortality is the loss of parents: “Readying to bury your father and your mother / What did you think when you lost another?” Still, as the song would argue, perhaps the looming fact that life is temporary only affords “sweetness” to the fleeting sliver of time we have.
Side two opens up with “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” a reflection on Montgomery Clift as both a commanding leading man and a tragic figure. Few people understand maintaining a loose grasp on dwindling time in the spotlight better than Clift, whose automobile accident robbed his stardom of its full potential. The song features a steady mandolin presence, a staple of the band after its influence on the previous year’s breakthrough single “Losing My Religion.”
Sounding like a politically charged spin on a track from Sammy Hagar era Van Halen, “Ignoreland” provides pure, unfiltered social commentary, taking clear stabs at government officials. The song is a mouthpiece for Stipe’s disdain for the recent Republican administration, even going so far as to directly call out specific policies and Presidential elections. It features neither subtlety nor introspection, both of which had been prevalent throughout the majority of Automatic for the People. Stipe even calls attention to how specific the lyrics are: “I know that this is vitriol / No solution, spleen-venting / But I feel better having screamed, don’t you?”
“Star Me Kitten,” the most experimental breath on the album, showcases R.E.M.’s ability to use every tool in their arsenal, and then create something so vastly different from their peers. With a title steeped in the band’s own inside joke, this is a deceptively filthy song. It’s a slow melody, reminiscent of maple syrup, but it is bursting with life. Stipe is using abstraction to dance around romance: “Hey, love, look into your glove-box heart / What is there for me inside, this love is tired / I’ve changed the locks, have I misplaced you?”
It’s rare that an act is able to sculpt a song with as much indiscriminate appeal as “Man on the Moon.” This brash, country-speckled dissection of a misunderstood icon borrows from enough different musical corners – and marries its findings so seamlessly – that it is almost guaranteed to suit any given listener’s taste. A strange and intricate song, “Man on the Moon” romanticizes a simpler time, one of wonder and amazement that has long since faded. Even in the midst of a subdued, somber reflection, R.E.M. shines through with a boisterous, sweeping chorus that is undeniably infectious and demands to be participatory.
“Nightswimming” hits you like a truck. It isn’t about loss or heartache; in fact, it reminisces about a treasured memory. Still, the piano trail and sweeping strings remind us that it is a solemn reflection, and that those days are cemented in the past. Often the best way of combatting aging is to recall the highlights of your youth. A frivolous diary entry, “Nightswimming” bathes in saccharine nostalgia but it is far too relatable (and far too well-crafted) to condemn.
Informed by Bill Berry’s melodica line, “Find the River” preaches the gospel of acceptance. Death is lurking in the shadows, and once you embrace this as inevitable, you can go about enjoying life. An appropriate album closer, it leaves the audience with a sense of hope, even if it is a bit more morbid than it seems on the surface. Tonally, it is a grand step forward: “Leave the road and memorize / This life that pass before my eyes / Nothing is going my way.”
This period worked to convert those who were lukewarm to the band before, mainly because of how unavoidable they were at the time. If you only bought a couple of albums in the fall of 1992, Automatic for the People was almost assuredly among them. And it merits the cultural wave it rides. While it’s difficult to pinpoint one crowning achievement in the career of R.E.M, this was an instrumental moment for the band, proving that they were always going to march to the beat of their own drum.